In many ways, COVID-19 had far less of an impact on leveraged finance markets than expected. Activity dropped in the second quarter of 2020, primarily in leveraged loan issuance, but a year later numbers returned to pre-pandemic levels. In fact, leveraged loan and high yield bond values reached record highs by the end of Q1 2021—the highest quarter since Q2 2018 and the second-highest quarter, respectively, on Debtwire Par record going back to 2015.
What drove this relatively high-speed recovery? First, the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act, signed into law in March 2020, protected many businesses from the full brunt of the pandemic. At the same time, many businesses shored up their finances, taking on debt to ensure liquidity as lockdown measures continued to have an impact through the second half of 2020. Issuances rose and that upward trajectory carried on into 2021.
By the end of Q1 2021, the picture had changed once again. Vaccines were being distributed quickly and efficiently, raising hopes for a post-COVID-19 future. The economy was also improving, as various states began to open up and a year of pent-up consumer demand was released. By May, core retail sales in the US had reached levels typically only seen over the Christmas period, according to the National Retail Federation. An air of optimism crept into the market, with lenders increasingly willing to take more risks on borrowers in their pursuit of yield. Financing earmarked for M&A and buyout activity also began to climb, hinting at growth plans for the months ahead. Perhaps most significantly, the low interest rate environment gave businesses an opportunity to reprice and refinance their maturing debt in droves.
What's next for 2021?
While these are all very positive signs for lenders in the leveraged finance space, there are still a few red flags on the horizon. First is inflation—in July, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that the US consumer price index had climbed 5.4 percent in the 12 months to June, a level not seen in 13 years. These growing inflationary pressures are part of the rush to reprice and refinance existing debt, as businesses try to avoid any unpleasant surprises if interest rates begin to climb as well.
Second, companies in robust sectors that enjoyed a degree of preferential treatment from lenders during the pandemic may find that sentiment shifting in the months ahead as other sectors begin to recover. The "flight to quality" witnessed in the early days of the pandemic will likely return to a more evenly balanced state of affairs. Documentation may also go through some changes in the coming months, as adjustments brought in during COVID-19 are phased out.
Finally, as the dust settles in debt markets, issues that were gaining ground before the pandemic will return in force, especially environmental, social and governance factors, which continue to take on increasing importance among borrowers and lenders alike.
All of which means the road ahead is not quite as clear as many would like, but there will be fewer obstacles blocking the path.